Tag Archives: freelance writing

Readings: News entrepreneurs, the security of freelancing and taming digital distractions

What follows are some links rattling around in my brain, and between the sofa cushions, as I battle to meet a major project deadline and get a better handle on this scattershot life on the Web I’ve been leading. It’s been a romp this week, and by no means is Friday the end of my work week. But hey, I’m not complaining. The joy of deep immersion in the work I love has me getting the same adrenaline rush of breaking news hitting my old newsroom.

If you’ve got some time this weekend, these pieces are well worth your perusal. The first link is the second installment in Michael Massing’s gargantuan examination of the vastly changing news industry for The New York Review of Books (here’s Part I). The following delves into online news ventures and startups trying to replace the journalism that’s disappearing from newspapers:

A New Horizon for the News: “What we do have is a tremendous increase in enthusiasm and initiative that, in the age of the Internet, counts for more than transmitters and printing presses. The retreat of the giant corporations and conglomerates is creating the opportunity for fresh structures to emerge. It remains to be seen whether foundations, wealthy donors, and news consumers will step forward to support them. . . .The opening won’t last forever. Lurking in the wings is a potential new class of media giants. Google, Yahoo, MSNBC, and AOL, all have vast resources that could finance a new oligopolistic push on the Web.”

How journalists can become successful news entrepreneurs: “Great reporters are resourceful. They don’t take no for an answer. If one official won’t answer a question, they’ll go find a document or dig a little more until the official feels compelled to answer. What ever it takes to get the story. No wall is too high or too thick once a good reporter sets his or her mind to reporting a particular story. That drive is the first pre-requisite to being an entrepreneur.”

Can Anybody Pull Off Long Form on the Web? “Salon also thinks that its content—mostly long-form, originally reported stories about politics, entertainment, technology and other topics—is just too costly given the level of interest from advertisers. It believes that advertisers will be more excited by shorter, more real-time pieces.”

Steering Clear of Writers Mills: “For those who feel the need to write something, anything, start a blog. Create a newsletter. Put together a fanzine. Just do something that belongs to you, so that should something come of it, you’re the one benefiting. Let the big time investors do their own work for a change.”

10 Reasons Why Freelancing is the Best Job Security: “Freelancers get exposed to a diverse assortment of ideas, business models, workflow processes, and technologies. This helps you to stay fresh and on the cutting-edge of the best practices in your field.”

50 things that are being killed by the internet: “When was the last time you spent an hour mulling the world out a window, or rereading a favourite book? The internet’s draw on our attention is relentless and increasingly difficult to resist.” (the ones that hit home for me are nos. 9, 12, 14, 21, 27, 29 and 50)

The Hierarchy of Digital Distractions: “Emailing, writing, tweeting, designing, browsing, taking calls, Skyping, Facebooking, RSS Feeding – all blurred into a single technological trance. I seem to switch randomly from one to the other. But actually is there a subtle hierarchy in this cloud? Do I prefer some distractions over others? I think so.” (via Bert DuMars)

New ramblings on entrepreneurial journalists

What I’ve found most daunting as I tackle the basics of building my own news site is the business side of the project, in general terms. And how to go about attracting advertisers, specifically. I know I am not alone.

Mark Potts, aka the Recovering Journalist, has developed a new ad business model for entrepreneurial journalists who are running local news sites. It’s called GrowthSpur, and among the advisors are Web media luminaries such as Jeff Jarvis. And it’s up and running:

“Our revenue model is a service fee on the advertising revenue we help you with. In other words, we make money if you make money.”

“How much money? We believe, based on our research and experience, that a well-run, sophisticated local site can bring in more than $100,000 a year in revenue from advertising, e-commerce and other sources. GrowthSpur exists to help local entrepreneurs achieve that level of success—and more.”

I think it’s going to be efforts like these geared toward solo journos, and those working in small news startups, that have the potential to pull us together in new ways. The feeling of being cast out alone, as traditional news institutions are dying or transforming, is one of the most difficult to grapple with in this new environment.

So I’m glad to see this new venture coming along. And I’ve gotten good ideas and resources from the RJI News Collaboratory, which is dedicated to helping independent journalists develop niche news sites. Bit by bit, venture by venture, new clusters of like-minded individuals are being created and I hope will flourish to help achieve some sense of community. Solidarity, even?

• Some former Los Angeles Times staffers have organized themselves into a sizable freelancing outfit. The Journalism Shop includes quite an array of reporters and editors who in addition to traditional news stories are making consulting, public relations, project management and research services available. I think this is a very smart strategy that reflects the versatile skill set and range of experiences that traditional journalists have cultivated and demonstrated. Even if some question their value.

• Check out this roster of well-known bylines that have decamped from newspapers and into the growing universe of AOL Newsroom. Most of these journalists are freelancers, and not all of them are big names. It’s another example that the value of this work is still highly prized. There’s so much institutional knowledge to be tapped into and needed for the journalism that new media sages say the public wants, but think increasingly can be done without journalists who regard their work as more than a hobby.

• But I’m not sure I can buy Michael Arrington’s claim that the 50 best reporters from The New York Times, should they pull off the unlikely stunt of leaving the Old Gray Lady all at once, could round up $100 million in hedge fund capital and start blogging on a diaspora-type site. Arrington cites the Politico as an example of mainstream reporters creating a dynamic, groundbreaking news site, but it is one that serves a very lucrative niche. (I doubt the recently maligned Alessandra Stanley would be among Arrington’s Dream 50; and now she’s getting an overheaping dish of revenge, served ice cold, from Katie Couric!)

• In Portland, Ore. a digital journalism camp took place last weekend that had University of Oregon journalism dean Tim Gleason excited, and for good reason. But his well-worn paean to the upcoming new “Golden Age of Journalism” is typical empty tripe that too often comes from visionaries who don’t seriously ponder how this will come about:

“In the midst of all this exciting innovation, there’s one certainty: The future of journalism, whatever it looks like, is bright — we just have to figure out how to pay for it.”

Piece of cake!

I wish cheerleaders like this would offer some tangible possibilities, rather than mindlessly shake pom-poms while displaced mid-career journalists try to stay alive in the profession. The bright future of journalism he predicts won’t be possible without the contributions of seasoned reporters, editors and photographers during this dramatic transition away from print.

Viable funding sources and business models have not yet been fully developed, and it may take years, even decades, before online journalism is on sounder financial ground. I’m bullish on what might transpire, but there’s too much at stake right now to get misty-eyed about what may be on the horizon. We’re not there yet. Not even close.

So Dean, let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves, shall we?

The quandary of writing for free — or close to it

The brief, but polite reply to my query is quite familiar to freelancers scouring the Web for writing opportunities:

“The position has been awarded to another writer, but if you’re interested in writing on a volunteer basis . . . “

Um, when the “v” word comes up, that’s when I put my foot down. Very briefly, and equally politely, I explained that my freelancing policy is to pursue only paying work.

In my still-evolving policy I write without compensation only for my own sites. I’ve also offered to barter my writing services to a friend who allowed me to use his photos and videos on one of my blogs. He offered his work to me for nothing; the least I can do is return the favor.

But what if paid work turns out to more of raw deal than the volunteer kind?

Last week freelance writer extraordinaire Erik Sherman dug into the nitty gritty of some freelance aggregators, aptly dubbing them “writers mills” and “intellectual sweat shops” for their paltry terms. He got a response from one such place, but kept plowing on. Love his description of who’s got the upper hand here:

“They want experience, they want productivity, they want . . . trust fund babies.”

I’ve felt despondent myself looking through similar sites, signing up for a couple, and then reading the grim fine print. You’ll knock yourself out and get very little in return.

Earlier this spring the topic flared up on Word Count, an excellent digital age-oriented site for freelancers, when a veteran freelancer urged novices not to write for aggregators. He received a quick retort from a popular aggregator. Michelle Rafter, the Word Count proprietor, suggested new freelancers approach hyperlocal sites or consider starting their own.

I won’t suggest never write for a “mill,” even though it’s not my preference, because I do know some people who are going down this road. But if you’re trying to build a full-time freelance writing career there won’t be enough time to do all the work for aggregators that won’t pay you a living wage.

If you’re not, you might as well start your own blog and run with it, hard. Put all of yourself behind it, make it your own, and build it into something that might lead you to some substantial money — some good freelancing offers or contract work or even a job. Your time will be better spent.

The individual with whom I had been corresponding did reply to my request to keep me in mind should he have another paying slot in the future. I really did mean it when I said I enjoyed reading his sites, while directing him to some of my work. Perhaps something will materialize; regardless, I’m glad I didn’t give in to the temptation of a cheap byline. Or a free one, actually.

This week Tracy Record of the West Seattle Blog replied in a comment to a post here about her hyperlocal site, which brings in enough advertising revenue to support her family. This is a terrific guideline for freelance journalists newly confronting the unforgiving world of writing for the Web:

“I’ve been trying to say this for a long time. . . These people who are slaving away for Examiner-dot-com or the zillion other ‘hey, we’ll pay you, really, at least, um, you’ll earn coffee money’ websites — or worse, ‘volunteer’ to write ‘blogs’ on newspaper websites — WHY oh WHY are you doing that? You don’t need tech expertise to set up your own site.

“God knows, we’re proof. We’re still running on the same out-of-box WordPress theme I chose 3-1/2 years ago when I thought this was going to be  ‘just a blog.’ We’ve gotten some help, pro bono and paid, to make some tweaks, and we can’t keep this theme forever, BUT if you’re just starting — go to WordPress or Blogger or wherever and GET GOING!

“Make your OWN name. Own your OWN page views. Rock your OWN world . . . if you do good work, Google will index you on your own site just the same way it would do so if you were buried in somebody’s bigger site. Don’t let somebody else earn money off your work. Aggregators aren’t the problem in that regard — writing for free or cheap for some big company IS.”

The fortitude of a freelance journalist

For the last few months, as I’ve been casually picking up freelance assignments and enjoying the variety and renewed energy of it all, I’ve been oblivious to the cold reality that those far more immersed in this way of work have been facing. Until now.

Someone I freelance for has lost a very nice gig of his own at espn.com, which has initiated sweeping cuts to its coverage of college sports. After being told in advance that his assignment might be curtailed, he responded on his own blog with a nice piece about the joys and struggles of carving out his ideal freelance/entrepreneurial niche. It’s very instructive, and sobering, for all of us trying to latch on to new ways of continuing in our careers.

What I love is his continued determination that journalists who have a burning desire to pursue their passions can still do that, but it’s going to require even more resourcefulness. He is asking for donations from his readers:

“If you can’t afford or are unwilling to give, here’s some free advice: it’s time for all of us to ratchet back our reliance on corporations, and fly or die on our own. I’ve been living off the Sports Bubble for so long that I’ve lost touch with the actual value of what I do, and I have no tangible idea if this operation would survive with a lessened subsidy. Nobody asked me to start covering mid-majors this way, nobody demanded it at any point, and the market didn’t require a smartass traveling reporter who talks as much about losing as winning, who posts more about philosophy than basketball. It seemed like the right way to do it, so that’s the way I do it.”

With this reality hanging over his head, he still wrote a marvelous story about a coach’s novel way of raising money for impoverished children that was featured prominently on espn.com’s college basketball channel.

Here’s a sports media blog’s take on the matter. While I’m gutted about what happened, I enjoy working with people like him. Whether you freelance or not, or end up staying in journalism or not, you should surround yourself with people like this.

Just what I need to get started this week

The very first item in my RSS feed today screamed at me in ways that I have not in recent weeks. The headline says it all:

“How to beat procrastination and get things done”

Definition of procrastination contained therein: “THE MASK of feeling overwhelmed, scared, insecure, or unable to do something correctly.”

This certainly has my mood pegged correctly right now, as I tackle a stage of my career transition that I have been reluctant to approach: Actively beginning a job search. There are several positions I have in mind, and I am eager to pursue them. After I spent most of last week getting my résumé in working order, my fantastic career coach finally gave me the green light: Go for it.

So here is the moment, and it is a daunting one. I’ll tell you what else procrastination is: The fear of rejection. Yet I know this is all part of the process. Given the rotten state of the economy that’s likely to grow worse, that ought to be a call to action.

And yet, it’s caused some melancholy. Perhaps it’s the the staggering news that continues to come out about the newspaper industry. Ditto for the economy, even if fears are being unnecessarily stoked by the media. If you’re not working, it’s hard not to feel a little extra jittery.

Then I read about a laid-off technology journalist in Silicon Valley and how he’s forging ahead, in ways that don’t sound very remarkable, except that so many of us are having to do the same thing:

“One part of Mullins’ day is spent pitching story ideas to editors and writing; making sure money continues to come in. The other part is spent sending out resumes, calling contacts to see if they’ve heard about job openings or tracking down editors about giving him work. With a mortgage to pay, Mullins jokes that he’s learning to mix Starbucks coffees as a ‘just in case.’

“The arduous process can sometimes get him down. ‘It can be frustrating and depressing to be sending e-mails and getting nothing back,’ Mullins said. ‘I have friends who help encourage me.’ ”

“As for the future of tech journalism, Mullins is confident that the public will always crave news.”

And as I sat down to write this post, I saw a message from someone I know who’s starting his day by “plunging headlong into red tape.” That cheered me up. Obviously I feel bad for him, because I know what his days are like in the corporate silo.

No, I was heartened because I don’t have the burden of red tape to choke my actions. That was one of the key factors in my buyout decision. All that’s keeping me from what I want and need to do are my own fears, and the limits of my own imagination that I don’t test frequently enough.

So without further delay, it’s time to go for it.

Arianna’s gambit on reinventing journalism

Trying to keep things forward- moving and thinking here on this blog as I’ve got some freelance deadlines to meet (yes, it does feel good to have them again!):

• Arianna Huffington is taking bigger steps in her entrepreneurial journalistic life as her Huffington Post venture announced it’s raised $25 million (you read that right) in part for an expansion of original content. Some of the money will be used to fund more investigative journalism as well as “a rollout of local versions of the HuffPo aimed at an unspecified number of cities.” Chicago was the first local site, and like the main site it contains mostly aggregated material.

ff_raves_huffington1_fNothing wrong with that, but there are a lot of journalists willing and ready to try something like this (myself included) if it can provide something of a living, and if the kind of work Huffington has in mind is more than the “point of view” journalism that her site has demonstrated thus far in its three-year existence.

In touting her forthcoming book on blogging, Huffington’s bullish on the notion that the old and new media “are good for each other,” but it’s clear where she sees that energy being harbored:

“The vast majority of mainstream journalists head in the direction the assignment desk points them. In contrast, bloggers are armed with a far more effective piece of access than a White House press credential: passion.’ ”

It’s hard to disagree with that: Her site is full of the vibrancy that I wish more traditional news sites would feel free to include (outside of celebrity news). Reading the HuffPost is a romp, and it reflects its proprietor’s personality. I love her audacity, her refreshing honesty, and her caution to the wind approach to not just the news, but to life. And I would imagine this new flux of cash will be used to attract plenty eyeballs for HuffPost in the wake of a dizzying presidential campaign. You don’t do that by sitting on the fence. Not with $25 million in hand.

Still, a bigger question looms: Where’s the kind of news gathering and reporting that doesn’t have a partisan or ideological edge going to find its Daddy Warbucks? Outside of the Knight Foundation, that is? Clearly Huffington has a burgeoning business model that is attractive to venture capitalists in ways that newspaper companies are not. (Some think even her setup is in for a big fall after the elections and she’ll have to cut costs, i.e., journalists. But this was written before the money came through.)

I want to let go of the needless restraints that I’ve long felt have choked journalistic innovation, what I call the “Neutered News Syndrome.” But neither do I want to become an effusive advocate for a cause, for a political philosophy, for a point of view that goes beyond the charge simply to inform and serve the public interest.

Someday I may give up the ghost and let it rip. I’ve done that to some degree in the past. Just doing this blog is an example of that. But I’m still working out how to blend my passion and professionalism without going over the top. Call me bland and boring, but that’s just where I am right now.

• Freelance writer and journalist Jen Miller talks about how blogging has helped her get more business, diversify her talents and led to a book contract. The key: Hone in on a niche, and work it. (Hers is the Jersey shore, of all things.) Really, really work it, and don’t get too expansive:

“I only tell people to blog if they have something to say. I could probably have a general interest ‘Hey, here’s Jen’s blog!’ type thing, but I didn’t see anything unique about that. I put some personal stuff into my shore blog, and that’s OK because of the title ‘Down the Shore with Jen.’ But a general interest blog? I’m not sure it would find as big an audience.”

She also has time to read a book a week — don’t skimp on books for pleasure — by getting rid of cable TV.

(My not-so-guilty pleasure right now — Salman Rushdie’s “Shalimar the Clown.” Wish I could say I’ll read it in a week, but I just can’t seem to cut the cable cord. Basketball season just started — occupational hazard!)